PIERRE, S.D. – Bear Butte is a sacred mountain to 17 tribes and for many
years its management has met with harsh criticism and anger.
The state of South Dakota owns Bear Butte and it is operated as a state
park, which according to the federal Freedom of Religion Act, must be open
to all who wish to use it for worship.
Bear Butte is used by American Indian spiritual leaders and many tribal
members for a variety of ceremonies and by families to pray for loved ones.
It is located on the northern edge of the Black Hills.
Prayer bundles can be seen hanging from trees and shrubs, sweat lodges are
set up and many conduct vision quests on the mountain, much the same as has
been done for hundreds of years. There are complaints that non-Indian
people remove the prayer bundles, which goes against Lakota beliefs. The
prayer bundle, according to Twila Turney, elder from Pine Ridge, should
stay until it decays on its own.
At times those who use the ceremonial grounds for prayer are gawked at like
fish in a bowl by tourists and curiosity seekers who have unlimited access
to the mountain.
“It is a lot of things to a lot of people. A church, a ceremonial site, a
camp ground, the start of the centennial trail,” said Doug Hofer, director,
Division of Parks and Recreation.
A problem in the management is that many groups of people have to be
considered. The Northern Cheyenne, Rosebud Sioux and Lower Brule own land
around the mountain. The Kiowa, all the Cheyenne and Arapahoe have land
held in trust by the federal government on the edge of the mountain.
Private land owners also own land and one parcel goes to the summit. It all
creates a management nightmare.
“There are a variety of groups we work with. Some just come through, there
are hikers and foreigners who want to learn about the Native American
culture. College groups study the geology and many school groups visit,”
said Ken Rost, district park supervisor.
The problems are many, according to the American Indian spiritual leaders
and those who use Bear Butte for religious purposes.
Tourists, new age practitioners and others who wish to learn from the
culture become a hindrance to Indians who are serious about spiritual
practices on the mountain.
Sonny Richards, a spiritual leader from Rapid City, asked the State-Tribal
Relations Committee of the South Dakota Legislature to provide some
legislative help. He asked that camping time in the ceremonial area be
“There has to be some kind of law that comes from you,” Richards told the
He said an historical cotton-wood tree was cut down. Cottonwood trees are
also sacred to the Lakota. He said bikers come to the mountain and camp and
He said a flute player who lives in nearby Sturgis comes to the mountain,
camps and plays the flute and it bothers most American Indian worshipers.
“New agers come in the camp with us and they hang out and we can’t ask them
to leave,” Richards said.
State Representative Jim Bradford, Pine Ridge, introduced legislation
several times that would help manage the mountain and make the tribes
involved. The legislation was never put up for a vote.
“By introducing the legislation, it might have helped people work together
to make the mountain better and make Native American people feel better,”
Bradford suggested turning the 10 acres used for the ceremonial area over
to the tribes. That parcel of land may not then be bound by the Freedom of
Religion Act. Richards suggested enlarging the ceremonial area.
What is not certain is how a forum, made up of tribes and state officials,
will react to restricting non-Indians on the ceremonial ground. The forum
has dealt with many issues over the years. One was the removal of a parking
lot that was too close to the ceremonial area; a code of behavior is
posted; and the ceremonial trail was not rebuilt for use by the general
public. Other issues are up for consideration.
Jim Jandreau, park superintendent and member of the Lower Brule Sioux
Tribe, said the problems never go away. “We deal with things as they come.
When we get things from the Indian community we address them immediately.”
State officials also have to determine which American Indian group to
listen to, the elected officials of each government or the traditional
people and elders, who speak for the religious aspect of the mountain.
Private land for sale also presents a problem. The land tribes own is not
in trust and the state has interfered with the land-into-trust transaction.
The state has just resurrected an 11-year-old lawsuit to stop the Lower
Brule Sioux Tribe from turning land it owns off the reservation into trust.
The land surrounding Bear Butte is within the boundaries of the 1868 treaty
lands for the Lakota, but is off the reservations as the boundaries are
The State-Tribal Relations Committee will take up the Bear Butte issue in
study and may come up with remedies that could turn into legislation that
will satisfy all users of Bear Butte.
The spiritual use of the mountain is of greatest importance to the Lakota,
Cheyenne and Arapaho. It is recommended that tribal officials, tribal
members and spiritual leaders become involved in the process.